I got a phone call last night from my friend Youssef (he also produces my celiac disease Podcasts) who informed me that Elisabeth Hasselbeck, author of The G-Free Diet: A Gluten-Free Survival Guide (2009), was being sued for plagiarism and copyright violation by Susan Hassett, author of Living With Celiac Disease (2008). He was concerned that there might be some merit to the case, and if so, perhaps I shouldn’t have Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the front page of Celiac.com.  After a quick internet search I found the June 9, 2009 Warning Letter written by Hassett's attorney, Richard C . Cunha.  After a quick read it did not take me long to determine that Elisabeth Hasselbeck, in my non-expert legal opinion (I was indeed a corporate paralegal for seven years, although I did not deal with plagiarism cases), has nothing to worry about—I do not believe that Hassett's case has any merit. But don't trust me, I urge everyone to read through that document and decide for themselves.

The first thing that struck me when reading the Warning Letter was that Hassett seems to take too personally the fact that she never received a card or acknowledgment for sending Elisabeth Hasselbeck a sample copy of her own book. Having received dozens of books from various authors, I, too, am guilty of never sending out responses. I, myself, am just too busy to send out blanket responses to everyone who sends a book. My guess is that Elisabeth Hasselbeck, as a host on "The View," receives hundreds if not thousands of sample copies of books per year from authors all over the world, all of whom would love to be on her show—and she is also too busy to respond to all of them.

Looking at the portion of the Warning Letter that deals with "glaring similarities" of language between the two books, I really don't see too much similarity in the examples. The use of the phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day" is certainly not a surprise, after all, it is a saying that is used so often in the English language that is has, in fact, become a cliché! It could easily be argued that neither book presents any truly original ideas regarding celiac disease, and in cases of plagiarism and copyright violation, this is an important point. Since I do not think that a reasonable person would believe that the language examples cited in the Warning Letter would rise to the level of plagiarism, perhaps Hassett feels that it is her ideas that were stolen? Let's examine the ideas that are presented in this letter and try to determine if any of them are original ideas created by Hassett. Below are what I believe are the basic ideas that are presented as "glaring similarities" in the Warning Letter:
  1. Relapses happen so don't be discouraged / it will take time to figure the diet out.
  2. Wheat-free does not mean gluten-free.
  3. Forbidden list of foods with Latin names of grains.
  4. Symptoms of celiac disease.
  5. Deli meats might not be safe / the deli slicer could be contaminated.
  6. Double check products with their manufacturer because their ingredients can change without notice.
  7. Anti-caking agents used in spices may contain wheat.
  8. Those with celiac disease ought to shop in the outer isles of a supermarket.
How many of these do you think are Hassett's original ideas? Not only have I seen many of these ideas in various books on celiac disease over the years, but I've seen many (if not all) of them on Celiac.com—well before either author ever published their book. Here are some examples of this:

1. Relapses happen so don't be discouraged / it will take time to figure the gluten-free diet out.
A huge focus of the Celiac.com forum is to help support people maintain a gluten-free diet, and here is just one example out of many of a post (from 2006) that demonstrates this idea.

2. Wheat-free does not mean gluten-free.
A search for "wheat free does not mean gluten-free" on Celiac.com yielded 26 results. I've been emphasizing this point since 1995, but here is a link to a Celiac.com post from 2005 with this exact quote in it.

3. Forbidden list of foods with Latin names of grains.
I believe that Celiac.com had the original "Forbidden List" of foods/ingredients that was ever posted on the Internet, and it DOES include grains with their Latin names on it, but if you don't believe me here is my Safe & Forbidden Lists page from May 30, 1997 courtesy of Archive.org. I actually created this page in 1995, and versions of these lists have been reproduced in many books. In chapter 10, pages 70-72 of her book, Hassett uses Celiac.com's Forbidden List from May 31, 2002 almost verbatim in her book without permission and without citing Celiac.com as its original source. Hassett's excuse at the end of the list is "Someone had given this list to me when I first found out I had celiac disease it was not much use to me then and really not much good to me now but I put it in the book in case it would be useful to someone who is reading the book." Wow, maybe this type of disclaimer will allow you to pull anything off of any copyright-protected Web site without proper citation or permission—do ya think?

4. Symptoms of celiac disease.
I think that every book and Web site on celiac disease lists symptoms of the disease (how could they not?). On Celiac.com we had a symptom list that we got permission to reprint from the Celiac Listserv back in 1995, but here it is on May 30, 1997.

5. Deli meats might not be safe / the deli slicer could be contaminated.
Here is a deli post from our forum from December 17, 2005, which contains "Just make sure you get the pre packaged meat from the manufacturer because the deli slicer will contaminate the meat."

6. Double check products with their manufacturer because their ingredients can change without notice.
It's hard to say how old this idea is...I can remember knowing this in 1995, but here is a post from Celiac.com's forum from August 22, 2004, which contains the idea: "You can (and generally should) double check with the company, but I am pretty sure it is still gluten-free."

7. Anti-caking agents used in spices may contain wheat.
Another ancient idea. See the very bottom of Celiac.com's Safe & Forbidden Lists from May 30, 1997 where it says "Ground spices - wheat flour is commonly used to prevent clumping."

8. Those with celiac disease ought to shop in the outer aisles of a supermarket.
Although this may be a newer idea (I am not sure that it is), I did see this idea at this site as well, and I believe that I have seen it in at least one other book on celiac disease, although I can't recall which one. Even if this were an original idea of Hassett's, it does not mean that Elisabeth Hasselbeck committed plagiarism by including it in her book, any more than Hassett committed plagiarism by using the ideas mentioned above that were not originally hers.

The rest of the Warning Letter deals with the layouts of both books, which again, look very similar to the layout of many books on celiac disease. I seriously doubt that this rises to the level of plagiarism, and I think it is very unfortunate that a lawsuit was necessary to figure this out—after all, my guess is that both authors originally had the same goal in mind for their books: To raise celiac disease awareness and to help others who have it (don't try to tell me they did it for the money because I know many celiac disease authors who don't make much money from their books).

Last, I am in the process of writing my own book on celiac disease—AUTHORS BEWARE—if anyone sends me a certified copy of their book I WILL NOT ACCEPT IT!

As always, Celiac.com welcomes your comments (see below).